To my ears and heart, there is nothing more rousing than a well-crafted single, whatever its source. And whenever Katy Perry’s Queen-of-the-Jungle anthem “Roar” swings past on the vine, I reach for the volume knob, hollering along with each carefully crafted swoop, caught in the undeniable art of pop music at its most beckoning.
But is it Prism, the title of Katy Perry’s newest album? Or Prison? The pop landscape is rife with all manner of growing pains, of once-teen stars provocatively proving they’ve come of age. Miley Cyrus, to cite the most sensationalized example of this seize-the-media moment, has taken the full-frontal approach, declaring maturity by embracing the frontiers of sexuality (though “Wrecking Ball,” despite its risqué video, is a pure, heartfelt power ballad on par with Heart’s mid-’80s classic, “Alone”). Rihanna’s “Stay” is without artifice or attitude, as is Lorde’s “Royals,” while Mme. Spears’s latest, “Work Bitch,” shows that harder can still be the new core.
That these songs are mostly producer-driven is a given, especially with the slice-and-dice tools of technology at hand. At the ASCAP awards in 2010, Perry went out of her way to acknowledge Dr. Luke Gottwald (and incidentally plug the new song they’d just co-authored, “Hot ‘n Cold”), a hat-tip to the most prolific of today’s hit-makers. It’s his hand on the controls that guides the majority of Perry’s new album, and he sports a resume that goes back to Kelly Clarkson. (2004′s “Since You’ve Been Gone,” a mélange of signifiers, from its eighth-note propulsive rock guitar to its empowering chorus, first brought him into my orbit, despite my own misgivings about the faux-theatrical melisma that television trophy-runs bring out in performers.) Luke had good schooling, under the wing of Swedish producer Max Martin — the hook-line and sinker of the Boy Band explosion — and his prowess and determination to crack the code of the Top 40 has resulted in a single-minded approach, despite the legion of writers and engineers and lyricists who now assist him in creating hooks.
With Perry, their formula is candid: the lyrics are typically witty — Perry’s “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” is a hilarious compendium of parties-gone-gonzo, with bon mots penned by Bonnie McKee, who bonded with Perry when she was fresh from trying to make it as a Christian singer. “I Kissed A Girl,” Perry’s Luke-helmed 2008 breakthrough, retained an unlikely innocence, only winking at its more sexualized entendres. Through each of these escapades, Perry has maintained a girlish, gosh-wow persona, projecting more the wholesomeness of a ’40s calendar girl than anything truly scandalous.
But she can’t play the wayward teen dream forever, and transgressive isn’t her style. Prism attempts to have it both ways, straddling her personas while preparing her for future stardom. She can’t move forward too fast, or she’d risk distancing her from her legion of tween fans, but she can’t run in place, either, because Selena Gomez is hot on her heels. Thus, on Prism, her many angles are refracted, as are the personalities within.
“Roar” owned No. 1 on whatever charts are still relevant, a rallying cry sure to be heard at sporting events for the foreseeable decade. The follow-up single, “Unconditionally,” is unabashed love eternal, a happily-ever-after anthem designed to bring out concertgoers’ smart phones. From there, the album is a sightseeing tour, stopping off at each of pop’s current ports of call, from the witchcraft of “Dark Horse,” with its slow Southern simmer, to the Euro-disco “Walking on Air,” to the blown out candles of “Birthday.”
The album’s underlying theme is self-discovery in the face of vulnerability, much of it filtered through the teachings of Eckhart Tolle, whose philosophy can be distilled into the title of his bestseller, The Power of Now. Perry co-writes her lyrics out of fragments, catch-phrases and motivational mantras; much of Prism seems as if she’s encouraging herself and her fans to rise above adversity (though, for obvious reasons, it’s hard to think of her as an underdog). Ultra-pop music on this global scale has little use for individual quirks of personality. If “be yourself” seems an obvious subtitle for Prism, it’s because that’s an ideal everyone can embrace.
Salvation comes in many forms. For a listener like me, it’s in the power-now truth of a great single, singing your song at that moment. For a pop star, the ability to escape cliché, to confound expectation, to avoid the obsolescence built into all-too-short attention spans and the public’s hunger for who’s hot and who’s not. Prism‘s heart-on-sleeve coda, “By the Grace of God,” drives the point home, its vulnerability reflected in the soul-searching invocation of, “the truth will set you free,” a line that brings Perry back full circle to the time when her last name was still Hudson, and she an inspirational Christian singer — yet another refraction of her prismatic persona.